The Weird, Wonderful World Of PC Music’s POP CUBE
The discourse surrounding PC Music is filled with a lot of baseless opinions masquerading as people doing their best to be the first ones to finally “get it”: It’s a takedown/celebration of the vapidity of modern pop music! It’s a hyperrealistic deconstruction of society’s obsession with commercialization! It’s all an allegory about the darkness inside us! There’s a grain of truth in all of those lines of reasoning, but it’s mostly bullshit. If last month’s SXSW showcase and this weekend’s POP CUBE exhibition — which was part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival — are any indication, PC Music are here to have fun, and be funny doing it. There’s no big agenda. Sure, most of them are art-school kids, and that comes with a certain level of theatricality, but most of the presentation just feels like a group of friends goofing off and making some killer music in the meantime. You can see that in the lead-up to the POP CUBE event: There’s a teaser video, where a self-serious A. G. Cook goes in deep on his ~process~ in the studio, or the Guardian profile piece, where a reporter is led through their funhouse-mirror factory, which includes meeting GFOTY while she’s laying in bed in a hotel next to a naked guy. These aren’t the markings of some intellectual dissertation; it’s people fucking with everyone just for the hell of it. Because, honestly, if I were being billed as the Next Big Thing, that’s exactly what I would do, too: At least give them something to write about. Strip away all that artifice, and what are you left with? People trying to make you dance, and maybe put a smile on your face and feel good about yourself for a few pop-song-minutes at a time.
And it seems to be working, judging by the line that was wrapped around the BRIC House in Brooklyn when fellow Stereogum staffer Gabriela Tully Claymore and I arrived on Friday night. Just as we got there, a humorously large white limousine pulled up. Soon after, QT jumped out and took her place atop a Red Bull-branded DJ truck that was parked outside. Thus began the procession of the PC Music elite: A red carpet was rolled out and, one by one, the rest of the crew made their way out, flanked by a horde of “paparazzi” all wearing POP CUBE T-shirts. Random passersby might have thought it was a massive movie premiere filled with stars they didn’t recognize. For the people waiting patiently in line, it was the equivalent of Oscar night. Hannah Diamond flashed a smile and threw on her sunglasses; GFOTY stumbled out with a cocktail in one hand. And after a quick stop by an interviewing station that they had set up, they were whisked away inside. The rest of the crowd was let in shortly after, and everyone was given the opportunity to take a picture on the red carpet before going inside. We obliged, of course. Because PC Music are not about exclusivity — they want everyone to feel like a star.
— Hannah Diamond (@Hannahdiamond_) May 10, 2015
From there, we descended into the lobby of the BRIC, an all-white, stereotypically antiseptic gallery space. A projector was spinning the POP CUBE logo on one wall, and opposite that A. G. Cook and Danny L Harle were warming the room up by performing as their proto-PC Music duo, Dux Content. There was a selfie station cordoned off to the side, where Hannah Diamond, GFOTY, and QT all got blocks of time to let eager fans snap a shot with them. (Cue compatriots Kero Kero Bonito’s “Picture This.”) Faux-metal boy band Thy Slaughter did a quick set in an adjacent room, featuring Dev Hynes on guitar — I totally missed this, and didn’t even know it had happened until after the fact. So goes POP CUBE.
After about an hour of milling around, sipping on drinks and waiting for the main show to start, a disembodied, mechanical voice came over the loudspeaker and instructed everyone to proceed into the theater. You could feel the room collectively hesitate, because we all thought the lobby would be where the main show was happening. But we all figured it out soon enough, and followed the throng into a dark room with a much more normal stage setup. The same POP CUBE logo loomed over all, bathing everyone in a warm, pulsating blue. And then it all began.
Danny L Harle was up first, and he started things off by flexing his classical music chops — that’s what he went to school for, after all — and came out with a full string section and piano player. He ran through some fractured, very pretty contemporary pieces before transitioning into his more electronic and familiar numbers. He’s probably the most subdued of the PC Music players, but even that means he’s somewhat larger than life. His tag played constantly throughout the set — a deadpan Danny L Harle snuck in every few minutes — and his biggest hits, “In My Dreams” and “Broken Flowers,” dropped like bombs. The latter was accompanied by a sweeping, epic visualizer of featuring digital forest landscapes that set the stage for the surreal tone of the night.
Here’s a quick aside: I’m used to New York crowds being jaded as all hell, but I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case at POP CUBE. After seeing how joyously the crowd reacted to their SXSW showcase, I wanted to see that carry over here. It didn’t. Some parts of the audience were fun, but they were usually the parts that were manufactured by the group themselves. Between each set, a few hired hands went around holding microphones that didn’t appear to be attached to anything, asking questions of audience members. A peppy girl came up to me to ask who my favorite PC Music person was — GFOTY, duh — and responded with “She’s soooooo hot” before disappearing into the crowd. But outside of the first few rows, it seemed like most people were there to spectate, not participate.
Which means, unfortunately, that people stood like statues for Hannah Diamond’s set, and you could tell she was a little thrown off by it at first, looking to the audience for a reaction that she never really got. She was introduced by an already-dated MyIdol figurine, and then launched into some spastic cheerleader dancing, like Bring It On on poppers. She ran through her best songs like “Pink And Blue,” “Keri Baby,” “Every Night,” and “Attachment,” and for the latter she brought out some acrobats dressed in all-white to join her on stage. She debuted a new single called “HD” that sounds like a lot of fun, and she ended the night with her very own dancing shadow iPhone commercial. Even though the crowd was less receptive than they probably should have been, her lip-synced set was a highlight of the night through sheer force of personality.
QT was up next and, like her SXSW set, this was more art show than music performance, mostly because the project only has one song to its name so far. She came out on stage and looked around with wide eyes, carrying a shopping bag on her arm and flanked by model assistants holding iPads. A display fridge at one end of the stage held a towering mound of QT cans. She opened a folder with Post-It notes on it, and read from that as she detailed her plans for the DrinkQT empire. She segued into a commercial, which played like a bunch of cult members espousing the transformative qualities of the drink — “a new type of energy for a new type of being” went the New Age-y tagline at the end. Then, QT took her place back on stage and got to what everyone was waiting for: “Hey QT,” surrounded by some impressive dancers. This is PC Music artifice at its best and most ostentatious — it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, but it feels important, which I think is a lot more important than actually being so.
Ringleader A. G. Cook took the stage next, and he played a completely serviceable DJ set that kind of paled in comparison to the performances that bookended him. The set did contain one of the highlights of the night, however, when Cook stepped out from behind the DJ booth to take a seat in front of the piano that was set up on stage. And he delved into a quiet, tender, contemplative piano piece that was different from everything else that went on that night — Cook’s voice was still filtered through Autotune, though barely, but it was clear he was determined to show a different side to the whole PC Music thing, one that’s more vulnerable and maybe more ripe for self-expression.
Then GFOTY came on, and blew that all to shit, demonstrating that you can show the darkest of human emotions through the digital void. She’s the punk of the PC Music crew, and she gave the best set of the night by far. Signage introduced her as a Grammy Award winner and as having 100 hit singles, and from the second she came out, it was pretty easy to believe all that was true in some alternate universe. GFOTY’s a lot more raw and less manufactured than the rest of the collective — instead of covering up her imperfections in glossy high-definition, she broadcasts them to an exaggerated degree. On stage, she wore a miniskirt that she proceeded to stuff with dollar bills — by the end of her set, she’d be in a nude bra and bikini, screaming into the mic on stage as if she were taking her last dying breath. On either side of the stage, a wacky inflatable lawn ornament towered over the audience — one was a clown, the other a Santa — and she threw an inflatable palm tree into the audience, repulsed by its meager existence. GFOTY may have been the most massive personality, but she was also the most real — like Ursula from The Little Mermaid if she took up a dance-punk side project. “Drown her in my tears,” goes the breakdown to one of her songs — it’s GFOTY in a nutshell: over-the-top reactions grounded in an overwhelming sadness. For as much as I love the rest of PC Music, GFOTY is making the only music that feels like it needs to get out, lest it build up and destroy from the inside out.
SOPHIE ended the night and, judging by the lively reaction, a lot of the crowd were just biding their time until the DJ took the stage. He’s grown a lot bigger than the rest of the lineup, and it’s clear why there’s a little distance between him and the rest of the PC Music roster. SOPHIE’s destined for the festival crowd. His set was punctuated by deep drops; the kind of squelching, minimalist squalor that’s become his trademark. While the other DJs of the night — Danny L Harle and A. G. Cook — took the time out of their sets to dig into different aspects of their personality — the former with his classical music background, the latter with a piano ballad — SOPHIE was all business. For a night that was filled with such exciting and weird experimentation, it was kind of a letdown for it to devolve into what basically amounted to a typical EDM concert. But when SOPHIE took the backseat and let his music be overtaken by a human voice, like on the fiery new Charli XCX collaborations or what sounded like the follow-up QT single built around the phrase “You can be my QT pie,” his production shined. I think I’m more of a SOPHIE fan when he’s working behind the scenes, but he definitely has his place among the rest.
PC Music are still growing — they’re still a little unsure of themselves when it comes to playing live. They’ve already got the internet game on lock, and they’re only getting better IRL as well. POP CUBE was a more polished presentation than their SXSW showcase, and I’m sure whatever the crew cooks up next will be even better. With Hannah Diamond and GFOTY albums on the horizon, PC Music are poised to take over the world. And, until then, they’ll just pretend they’re superstars already.